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John Berger: ‘If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen’

On the eve of his 90th birthday, one of the most influential writers of his generation talks about migration, Brexit, growing old and his fondness for texting

On 5 November, John Berger will turn 90. As I travel to Paris to meet him, I carry a bagful of books. There are recently published art historical writings, Portraits, and, to coincide with his 90th birthday, Landscapes (judiciously selected by Tom Overton for Verso), a fascinating series of encounters with the thinkers who have mattered to Berger, from Brecht and Walter Benjamin to Rosa Luxemburg. A marvellous miscellany of more recent work, Confabulations, has just been published by Penguin, and A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger(including tributes from Ali Smith, Sally Potter and Julie Christie) is coming soon from Zed books.

The homage continues on film in The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, shot during his late 80s a collage of informal conversation and political discussion, with offerings by Tilda Swinton, the writer and producer Colin MacCabe and others. It was shot in the hamlet in Haute-Savoie, in the French Alps, where Berger lived for more than 40 years. These jostling admirers show not only that the man is greatly loved, but an intellectual indebtedness behind the wish to say thank you. Critic, novelist, poet, dramatist, artist, commentator and, above all, storyteller Berger was described by Susan Sontag as peerless in his ability to make attentiveness to the sensual world meet imperatives of conscience. His book Ways of Seeing, and the 1972 BBC television series based on it, changed the way at least two generations responded to art. And his writing since then especially about migration has changed the way many of us see the world.

Berger now lives in Antony, a suburb seven miles outside Paris, where he stays with his old friend Nella Bielski, an actor and writer who grew up in the Soviet Union. They open the door together, and as we sit down to lunch, she turns to me and says: The thing you have to understand about John is that he is not interested in talking about himself. While the chorus of approval gets louder on this side of the Channel, he is, unlikely as this might sound, barely aware of any fuss brewing. When I produce a proof of A Jar of Wild Flowers, he turns it over in his hands in delighted surprise. That is a drawing by Melina, he exclaims, surveying the flowers with spindly stems on the cover, my granddaughter. He gets up from the table and returns with an oil portrait, the size of a sheet of A4 paper. It is of an ageless face and yet Melina is only 13. (Berger has three children Katya, Jacob and Yves and five grandchildren.) He props it next to us and we look at her, as if she had joined us for lunch. If you ask me who I am, Berger says, Id like to see myself through her eyes, in the way she looks at me. Her stare is disconcertingly level. She looks, we agree, as if she knows more than she could possibly know or have seen.

The
The painting of his granddaughter, Melina, 13, by Jules Linglin, of which Berger says: If you ask me who I am, Id like to see myself through her eyes. Photograph: Jules Linglin/Kate Kellaway

There are two things that are wonderful about this moment. The first is the reminder that Berger is as interested as ever in ways of seeing; that he still has the ability to give himself the slip, to turn perception into an out-of-body experience. And second, it is characteristic that he is keen to champion the young artist who painted his granddaughter. Fetch me a piece of card from that side table, he says. He writes in his not-quite-steady, attractively looping hand: Jules Linglin. He is going to be very well known one day, he declares, handing the card back to me.

In spite of his wish to be seen through his granddaughters eyes, it is Berger himself I now observe. He is smallish, but his face is big handsomely hewn, with blue eyes and thick white hair. I have recently watched Ways of Seeing on YouTube, and it is extraordinary how commanding the four episodes still are. Berger had no time for ivory towers his way of seeing was radical. Forty-four years ago he was a charismatic presence, looking into the camera with piercing eyes and a frequent frown, as if constantly on the edge of disagreeing with himself. The look was fitting because what the series did was to make people rethink. He never ducked difficulty: he described, for instance, how women, in traditional painting, were there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own. Unlike Kenneth Clarks patrician Civilisation(1969), Ways of Seeing was never overbearing. In each episode, Berger sports the same groovy shirt with a geometric brown design on a cream background. His voice is clear and emphatic and fudges its Rs. His final words in the series are: What Ive shown, and what Ive said must be judged against your own experience. That is what everything he has written asks us to do.

For me, Berger will always be the author of To the Wedding a moving, unexpectedly affirmative novel about Aids, in which truth pursued fiction because he discovered only after he had started writing it that his daughter-in-law was HIV-positive. When I was a Booker judge in 1995, it was, out of 141 contenders, the novel I most wanted to win although it possibly made for a quieter life that it didnt. Berger famously gave away half his Booker prize money to the Black Panthers in 1972, when G, his postmodern novel about an Italian philanderers political coming-of-age, secured the prize. A lifelong Marxist (although never a member of the Communist party), he disapproved of Booker McConnells historical association with indentured labour in the Caribbean. The other half of the money went to funding Bergers book, A Seventh Man, with the photographer Jean Mohr, about European migrant workers a work he has since said is the one he would most like to survive him. Apparently, one of the Black Panthers went with him to the Booker ceremony and repeatedly advised him to keep it cool.

And now Berger is looking at my proof copy of Confabulations a miscellany of his essays and drawings (he went to the Chelsea School of Art as a young man, studying under Henry Moore, and taught there before being hired as the New Statesmans art critic). We consider his lively sketch of half a dozen topsy-turvy mushrooms. Underneath, in his hand, is written: See you later, Omelette People forget that Berger is funny. And curious. And that he listens how he listens. Over lunch, the small talk is of artichokes and an incredible Georgian dish involving walnuts, but this then leads Nella to talk about Bergers American wife, Beverly Bancroft (mother of Yves; the older children are from an earlier marriage), who died in 2013, and of her artistry as a gardener. This makes me think of the most moving scene in The Seasons in Quincy, in which Berger urges Tilda Swintons teenage twins to pick raspberries because Beverly loved them. Berger suggests the twins gather photos of Beverly and they go ahead and make a sort of homemade shrine and eat bowlfuls of raspberries alongside it. Your pleasure will give her pleasure, Berger tells them. Towards the end of lunch, Nella whispers to me, in an aside, that she has nicknamed her Parisian house Hotel Spinoza after Bergers favourite 17th-century philosopher. His book Bentos Sketchbook (2011) was inspired by Spinoza, whose day job was as a lens grinder. Like his hero, Berger prefers not to distinguish between the physical and spiritual. Spinozas vision, he now tells me, is that all is indivisible.

After lunch we move into his study, a den of paintings, a place of light, its windows thrown wide, looking on to trees. He tries to make himself comfortable on the white sofa, an arthritic back giving him trouble. As a writer, Berger has that rare and wonderful gift of being able to make complex thoughts simple. He once said, in a BBC interview with Jeremy Isaacs, that he likes, in all his work, to follow the advice of the photographer Robert Capa: When the picture is not good enough, go closer His eye for detail remains unrivalled and consistently surprising (think of his irresistible observation that cows walk as if they were wearing high heels). Reading him is like standing at a window perhaps a bit like the window of this study with no one blocking the view. The way I observe comes naturally to me as a curious person Im like la vigie the lookout guy on a boat who does small jobs, maybe such as shovelling stuff into a boiler, but Im no navigator absolutely the opposite. I wander around the boat, find odd places the masts, the gunwale and then simply look out at the ocean. Being aware of travelling has nothing to do with being a navigator.

Berger was born in Stoke Newington, north London. His father, Stanley, was a Hungarian migr who came from Trieste via Liverpool to London and was much affected by the first world war, in which he served as an infantry officer and was awarded the Military Cross. He loved painting and was self-taught (paternal conscience led him, when he found John reading Joyces Ulysses, to confiscate the book, along with five others, and lock them up in his safe). In Colin MacCabes film for The Seasons in Quincy, Berger instructs Tilda Swinton (a friend for more than 20 years) on how to quarter and peel apples in the way his father used to do, and affectionately remembers how his father wanted him to be a lawyer, a doctor, an English gentleman.

Berger
Berger with Tilda Swinton in The Seasons in Quincy.

Bergers mother, Miriam, came from Bermondsey, south London (her father worked in the docks and looked after brewery dray horses). She had been a suffragette and, Berger has said, was a very mysterious person, very secretive. But she was not secretive about her ambition that her son would one day become a writer. Berger prefers to avoid talking about his boarding school, St Edwards, Oxford, which he once described as lunatic and with sadism, torture, bullying an absolutely monstrous place, a little totalitarian system. He was sent there aged six and ran away at 16. Was it at school he first understood that the world was unjust? I learnt even earlier, he replies, at about five. And he pauses and I wait. It is like watching a fisherman pulling on a line: My mother to make money to send me to school made biscuits, sweets and chocolate to sell. I didnt see much of her as she was always in the kitchen, working. But once I was in the kitchen and a young man on a bicycle came in and asked for two bars of chocolate. She picked them up, told him the price and he said: Oh, forgive me, Ive not got this money, theyre too expensive for me, and walked out without any chocolate. And I was enormously struck by this incident. I did not judge. I did not judge my mother nor did I judge him for not having enough money. He pauses, I was just waiting for Karl Marx, and he laughs.

In his essay Impertinence (in Confabulations), he describes the New Zealand governess (pre-school) who used to banish him into what she called the Cry Cupboard whenever he wept. Sometimes his mother would come upstairs to see how he was doing and cheer him along with a box of her chocolate fudge. School, rather than confronting me with something, confirmed something I already felt because, from a very early age, I had this sense of harshness and the need for endurance.

In 1944 he joined up, refusing a commission with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry, and became a lance corporal at a training camp. He preferred the company of working-class recruits, for whom he became a scribe, writing their letters home. In a sense, he has continued to do this all his life: telling other peoples stories lest they vanish. In a conversation with Susan Sontag, he once said: A story is always a rescuing operation. And he has also said (in The Seasons in Quincy): If Im a storyteller its because I listen. For me, a storyteller is like a passeur who gets contraband across a frontier.

In his 1975 book A Seventh Man, about migration, the rescuing impulse is clear. Berger writes in the preface: To outline the experience of the migrant worker and to relate this to what surrounds him both physically and historically is to grasp more surely the political reality of the world at this moment. The subject is European, its meaning is global. Its theme is unfreedom. When he considers todays refugee crisis no longer confined to Europe does he see the first world as suffering from a failure of imagination? There is another extended pause, like a ravine into which one might fall. Eventually he replies: What two different people have in common will always, in all cases, be larger than what differentiates them. And yet for dozens of different reasons, circumstances blind people to that.

And what does he think about Brexit? He leans back on the sofa (we have now shifted from the overheated study into a cooler parlour, a sofa crawl in operation) and admits it has always been important to him to define himself as European. He then attempts to describe what he sees as the bigger picture: It seems to me that we have to return, to recapitulate what globalisation meant, because it meant that capitalism, the world financial organisations, became speculative and ceased to be first and foremost productive, and politicians lost nearly all their power to take political decisions I mean politicians in the traditional sense. Nations ceased to be what they were before. In Meanwhile (the last essay in Landscapes) he notes that the word horizon has slipped out of view in political discourse. And he adds, returning to Brexit, that he voted with his feet long ago, moving to France.

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John Berger c1962, the year he moved to France. Photograph: Peter Keen/Getty Images

We talk about what it is for a person to adopt a foreign country as home, and about how it is possible to love a landscape like a familiar face. For Berger, that face is the Haute-Savoie. This is the landscape I lived in for decades [he left only after Beverly died; his son Yves still lives there with his family]. It matters to me because during that time, I worked there like a peasant. OK, dont lets exaggerate. I didnt work as hard as they did but I worked pretty hard, doing exactly the same things as the peasants, working with them. This landscape was part of my energy, my body, my satisfaction and discomfort. I loved it not because it was a view but because I participated in it.

He explains: The connection between the human condition and labour is frequently forgotten, and for me was always so important. At 16, I went down a coal mine in Derbyshire and spent a day on the coal face just watching the miners. It had a profound effect. What did it make you feel? Respect, he says quietly. Just respect. There are two kinds. Respect to do with ceremony what happens when you visit the House of Lords. And a completely different respect associated with danger. He says: This is not a prescription for others, but when I look back on my life I think its very significant I never went to a university. I refused to go. Lots of people were pushing me and I said, No. I dont want to, because those years at university form a whole way of thinking. And you feel free from that? Yes.

Berger fittingly, given his work with peasants means shepherd in French. Do the French see him as one of their own? My writing in France has not had a huge impact. The countries where Im most read are Spain, Latin American and until recently, oddly, Turkey and Italy. Nor has he lived up to his surname, except Ive occasionally taken a ewe on heat in the back of my 2CV to meet a ram. I say we dont call that shepherding, we call that something else. He laughs. He is a man of action: until a few months ago he was (a most dashing octogenarian) still riding a motorbike. Nella tells me they hope it wont be long before he rides again and swims. Berger is a keen swimmer and, in Confabulations, writes brilliantly about the democracy of swimming people stripped of telltale trappings, doing their lengths. When you are swimming, he says, you become almost weightless, and that weightlessness has something in common with thought. There is also a wonderful account in Bentos Sketchbook of a friendship he strikes up with a Cambodian woman who shares the same Parisian swimming pool. She gives him a painting of a bird and, he maintains, teaches him something about homelessness.

As he nudges closer to 90, Berger feels his own way of seeing has changed surprisingly little, although, he points out, technology has changed the way younger generations explore art. He admits, then, to his enthusiasm for texting: Ive been a fan for a long while because its like whispers and with that goes intimacy, secrecy, playfulness But there is nothing fixed about the way he sees. He believes one never sees the same picture twice: The second time I saw the Grnewald altarpiece was after a terrorist attack it was the same painting yet I saw it differently. The importance of certain painters has shifted too. He reveres Modigliani less, admires Velzquez more: When one is young, one likes drama, excitation, bravura Velzquez has none of this.

As a writer, Berger has always had a gift for making absences present. Can he summon the people he has lost in his mind? Yes, yes, yes they are very present. I tell him how moved I was by his essay Krakow (in Landscapes), in which he remembers a New Zealand teacher, Ken, a huge influence on him. And his eyes fill as I speak. It was Ken who told him that whenever he could not sleep, he should imagine you are shuffling a pack of cards advice he still follows. Ken also taught him the trick (not so useful now) of how to walk into a pub for a spot of underage drinking: Dont look back dont doubt for a moment, just be surer of yourself than they are. And he advised against self-pity. Whenever I might have been filled with self-pity, I turned it into furious anger. Even at my old age, Im still capable of getting very angry.

But Bergers greatest strength in old age is his ability to live in the present. I cultivated this early on and this is the paradox because it was an escape from prescriptions, prophecies, consequences and causes. The present moment is key to his thinking too. In Ways of Seeing, he suggests that paintings embody the present in which they were painted. Defining the secret of reading aloud well, he says it is refusing to look ahead, to be in the moment. And he says that a story puts its listener in an eternal present. He has also written about the circularity of time. Does he think that applies to an individual life? Is there, in old age, a way in which one starts to hold hands with ones younger self?

Time is circular, and in relation to that portrait of Melina, that is exactly what I feel. He suggests I take a photo of the painting. We carry it into the sunlight, prop it against the back of a chair. I say the Observer will need a photograph to go with this interview and he asks with boyish mischief: Couldnt we use her instead?

It is only after I get home that I realise I failed to ask him how he intends to spend his birthday. I text him and he rings straight back. Listen, he says, I feel so grateful to have reached 90 it is such an age and to my friends for wanting to celebrate, but what Ive told them all is that what we ought to do on the day is be silent. My birthday should just be a day like any other.

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